Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Survival strategies

CW Eugenics, self harm, suicide.

I can’t imagine considering another human being undeserving of life on the basis of how useful or productive they are. And yet, here I am with this incredibly fascist piece of thinking lodged in my head, but only applicable to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I had to justify my right to exist. Certain things – failure, uselessness, feedback that I am worthless or unloveable – inclines me to think that I’m not entitled to exist. Too much of that pushes me into self harm and suicidal thoughts.

I don’t know where it came from originally, but it is old and deeply rooted. My sense of my own right to live is dependent on other people finding me useful enough. This is a painfully subjective measure and leaves me ridiculously vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback. It’s taken a long time to unpick what is going on for me when I crash into the worst and most dangerous levels of depression. I experience a terrible rage, inward facing, over the things I cannot fix or make good enough. I know there is no one else I would judge on such terms as these, and no one else I would have any wish to hurt in the ways I hurt myself.

I’m trying a new approach to deal with it. I’ve found with internet trolls that if they call me ugly or stupid or worthless, the best move is to agree with them, because it stops them in their tracks. So, whatever this voice in my head is, I’m trying the curious process of agreeing with it when it launches into telling me that I am useless and unloveable and deserve to die. I say yes to it.

And then I visualise Boris Johnson.

The UK’s current Prime Minster is useless to the point of being a danger to people. He is arrogant, uninformed, reluctant to make decisions, and as a consequence of his poor choices there have been a lot of needless deaths in the UK, and will likely be many more. And yet there he is, still running the country. And while I think we’d all be better off without him, there’s no desire for violence in that thought. 

So I visualise Boris Johnson, and remind myself that however awful I think I am, I haven’t killed thousands of people with my incompetence. 

I’ve learned over the years that positive affirmations don’t work for the stuff in my head. Trying to be nice to me can actually make things worse in here, increasing both the rage and the panic. Being nice to myself doesn’t reliably feel safe. What I need most at the moment is to build the confidence that it might be ok to be useless. That being unloveable should not be a death sentence. That a mistake is not a reason to punish someone. I’m slowly building the thought that I can be crap and still be allowed to live.

In the past I spent a lot of time and energy trying and failing to be good enough. Because there’s always going to be someone for whom I’m not good enough, no matter how good I am. I’m flawed and faliable, I don’t know everything, I can’t see the future – I am bound to get things wrong, we all get things wrong. The idea that if I’m not perfect then I don’t deserve to live sets an impossible, tortuous standard. There is no winning at this. The only way out is to stop playing this toxic game.

I am frequently crap. It is ok to be crap. 

External sources for internal viability

The advice around mental health is consistent. Don’t base your self esteem on external sources like approval or achievement. Don’t base your will to live on things outside of yourself, or other people. Don’t make your sense of self about how other people treat you. We’re encouraged not to be too focused on things we see as evidence of success or on the opinions of other people.

All of which assumes you have some kind of internal resource to draw on where you can realistically base those things. I blogged a while ago about what it’s like having nothing to reboot from, and this line of thought follows on from that. 

Internal resources are something most people will build during childhood. The experience of feeling secure – practically and emotionally – is a key experience. The child who grows up feeling loved and wanted, respected, valued and worthwhile will internalise those values. If you grow up without those experiences, all of your sense of self worth depends on the conditions you are in, and the conditions placed on you. The less-functional childhood doesn’t offer unconditional acceptance, instead the child learns the terms on which they might earn praise, approval and other affirmations.

For some children, there is never the experience of being good enough. This can particularly impact on children who show early signs of being talented, gifted or unusually clever and who are then burdened with high expectations and come to feel inadequate as a consequence. I hear from my neurodivergent friends about the ways in which not being able to do what the neurotypical kids did impacted on their childhood. It’s not always about deliberate cruelty, control or neglect – although it can be. Well meaning parental ambition can really mess a kid up. 

If you have nothing to reboot from, you may find it really hard as an adult trying to build a sense of self worth from scratch. But here’s the thing – happy children don’t actually do that by themselves. They develop self esteem from the supportive, encouraging feedback they receive from the people around them. Trying to grow confidence or a feeling that your life has meaning as a solitary, inner process is hard, perhaps impossible. The key is to find people who can help you with that.

Unconditional care isn’t something that only parents can provide to children. Your true friends will value you for who you are, and they won’t make you jump through hoops to win approval. There are many people out there who will treat you with respect and dignity simply because you exist. There are people who default to kindness. If you grew up without this, you may find it hard to trust or recognise, but that’s the inner work to focus on. Work out how to find the people who make you feel good about yourself. Start imagining that you are allowed to feel good and be happy, and that you don’t have to jump through hoops to earn that. Find the people who don’t want you to jump through ever more hoops.

Mental health is not something that exists in  isolation. There’s always a context. How we treat each other has huge implications for our wellbeing. Some people grow up with the confidence to know that they deserve kindness and respect. Some people don’t start from there, and can struggle to imagine deserving to be treated well. No one can fix that on their own, but we can do a great deal together. 

Exciting times!

Excitement is one of my favourite emotions. It’s the difference between lying in bed feeling apathetic, and actually wanting to get up and greet the day with an open heart and a desire to get stuck in. As someone who suffers a lot from depression, having any capacity for excitement marks being in a better place.

Of course being excited is risky. It means moving towards new and unfamiliar things, taking chances, caring, investing, trying… and when everything is awful, there can be little scope for that. It’s also a feeling that runs very close to anxiety, and a body exhausted by anxiety can’t afford excitement. Chemically, they’re much the same, and while my brain knows the difference between excitement and anxiety, I don’t think my body does.

Excitement is a future-facing sort of emotion, so it’s something that depends on living in relationship with time rather than being mostly focused on the present. It’s a call to action along with the inspiration and energy to move. To be excited is to be able to trust that things will be good, that I can get things right, that there is hope.

If I step into the feeling of excitement, and what it calls for, then there might also be joy. Excitement promises the opportunity to make good things. If I can act on that, there may be delight, satisfaction, pleasure, or feelings of justice and appropriateness. In making something better, I will feel better. 

This is a key emotion for me around creativity. I particularly relish opportunities to be excited about ideas, and to share that excitement with other people. It’s life enriching. I also note that its not enough for me to just be excited about ideas without acting on that in some way. I get really frustrated dealing with people who talk a good fight but have no interest in putting any of it into action. I also struggle dealing with people who want to be excited by things and for whom the state of excitement is itself the goal. I’m interested in it as the beginning of a process, not as a state to achieve for its own sake.

If I’m excited enough about something, that will carry me through the times when there’s just a hard slog of work to do. I’ve recently finished all of the colouring for our next graphic novel. Sometimes colouring is exciting, but often it isn’t and is simply about getting a job done to as high a standard as I can manage. Excitement around future projects and prospects helped me get through that.

And right now, I’m excited about what comes next!

When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.

Helping your suicidal friend survive

The most important thing to know is that if one of your friends is suicidal, you probably won’t know. You might even have no idea that they were depressed. People hide their issues and often suicide comes as a massive shock to everyone who knew the person. Encouraging people to reach out when they need help isn’t that useful.

If you know that someone has suicidal feelings, the single best thing you can do in the short term is keep them talking. Any topic will do. A person who is talking isn’t dead. Don’t judge, undermine or belittle anything they tell you. Don’t make light of things. Don’t argue with them by telling them they have so much to live for. Don’t make it about other people – being told to endure unbearable pain for someone else’s comfort doesn’t actually make people feel better. Don’t make it about you. 

Most of the time you won’t know if someone else is struggling. What this means is that helping your suicidal friend survive actually depends on what you do all the time. How would you speak and act if you thought anything you said or did might be a life or death issue for someone else? With this in mind, perhaps we’d see fewer people on social media telling others to delete themselves or get in the sea. Perhaps we’d see less violence in language. Perhaps we’d cut back on the mockery, ridicule, shaming, put downs and other casual forms of cruelty.

When we make nasty comments about celebrities for being fat, or depressed, or not looking pretty enough – they will probably never know, but your suicidal friend might think this is what you think of them. 

It may sound like a lot of work to have to pay attention to everything you say and to act like someone’s life could depend on it. One of the contributing factors to people being suicidal can often be that maintaining the comfort of comfortable people is treated as more important than taking care of the person in crisis. I’ve seen this kind of shut-down many times. When people tell you they are tired of your gloom, bored of you talking about your issues… depressed people often hear that someone else’s comfort is more important than keeping them alive. It’s done so casually, carelessly and off the cuff, often, that I’m not even sure most of the people doing it have any idea that they might be pushing someone towards the edge. And some of them do know, and fat shame and disability shame people they know under the banner of ‘only trying to help’.

Saving lives means being as actively kind as you can manage. All the time. It means thinking about how your words and actions might impact on other people. Paying lip service to mental health does nothing. Caring for people actually takes effort and attention. Finding out how to support people takes effort. Finding out what allegedly normal speech can do to vulnerable people is uncomfortable. Damage isn’t all about big drama, it can be the cumulative effect of countless small woundings.

You probably won’t get a cinematic moment when you grab your friend and bodily prevent them from jumping off a bridge and thus heal their pain and make them want to live again. You probably won’t ever know if what you said or did made a difference, either to save someone, or to push them closer to death. What you do, matters.

Therapy isn’t always the answer

Following on from my post about helping your depressed friends, I think it might be helpful to talk about therapy. Encouraging your depressed and anxious friends to get therapy or counselling may seem like a kind and helpful thing to do, but it isn’t. Trust me, they’ve already thought about it, and if they aren’t heading that way, there are reasons.

Free therapy and counselling are hard to come by and tend to take many months, if not years to access. That’s no use to a person who is in crisis right now. Chasing support that won’t manifest for ages may not strike them as a good use of their time and energy when they are already in trouble.

Counselling and therapy can be accessed much faster if you can pay for it. However, many of us don’t have a spare £50 a week to spend on an hour of professional support. To be effective, you need to spend a lot of time and money, and for many people that just isn’t possible. Therapy is a long term solution not the answer to an immediate crisis. There are almost no resources available to deal with immediate mental health crisis.

Most trauma therapy resources start from the assumption that you’ve had one bad experience and need to reboot. This is as true of online free resources as it is therapists. If you have experienced complex trauma, this whole approach can be unhelpful through to harmful. If your trauma was in childhood, you may have no normal to go back to. Complex trauma is complicated and specialists are few and far between.

Distress can be complicated by many factors – poverty being one of them. Not everyone will admit to you that they can’t afford a therapist. Depression and anxiety often have their roots in real and intractable problems that a therapist can’t deal with. Yes, tools to help you handle it better might be nice, but they aren’t worth much when you’re dealing with abuse, workplace bullying, insecure accommodation, systemic racism, gender identity crises etc. Sometimes you just have to deal with or live with the problems and a therapist might not actually be able to help with that. And sometimes they can, but that’s a really personal decision about whether you think you have the kinds of problems that can be helped with in this way.

The more complicated your issues, the harder it will be to find someone who knows how to help you. Your expert on supporting people with domestic abuse may know nothing at all about polyamoury. They may even have a really unkind attitude to that – as happened to me once. The expert on grief processing might not know anything much about how to help someone with an eating disorder and the two might be deeply intertwined for you. The person with great skills for tackling irrational anxiety might not have any idea how that intersects with your experience of racial abuse. And so it goes on.

How many therapists you could potentially access depends on where you live and what access to transport you have and how much time and money you can afford to spend travelling to people. Or it depends on your intent access, which might not be good enough or may not allow you the privacy for online conversations. A lot of free support has religious underpinnings. Pagans may not feel comfortable going to Christian counsellors, who may be entirely unable to help them. Even if therapy is a good idea, there are lots of reasons why it might not be available.

One thing I would particularly ask is not to tell people that healing is dependant on getting professional support. Healing is easier, often with the right support, but there are few things more depressing than being told your poverty or complexity means there’s no way out for you. Many of us have to heal without a professional guide in the mix. Books exist. Peer support exists. Working it out from scratch exist. Please don’t invalidate these solutions because for many people they are the only options available. And it is possible. I’ve unpicked and got under control a number of PTSD triggers over the years. It was bloody hard work, and I expect it’s easier with good support, but it is possible

Taking off a skin

Sometimes growing is a smooth and easy process. However, for some creatures, growing means shedding a skin. It means breaking your exterior and climbing out of it in a new, soft skin that can expand. Insects do this a lot. Snakes of course also shed in order to grow.

It can be a helpful metaphor for certain kinds of emotional experience. Growing isn’t always a sweet and comfortable process. Growth can be terrifying, and sometimes you have to shatter what’s on the outside in order to have the room to get bigger.

Sometimes the lives we make and the ways in which we present ourselves are designed to keep us safe, but really keep us small. To be authentic, to feel real, to live your truth you may need to be something less guarded, less like a fortified building. When the walls we build to protect ourselves are too constricting, breaking out is messy. 

Sometimes it becomes apparent that the outside layer isn’t a skin. It is not your skin. It’s more like having had your growth curtailed by getting wrapped up in plastic litter. Getting out of it may prove bloody and you may need help. You are not the plastic rope that got wrapped around your natural shell. You are not the things that dig painfully into your skin.

It may be the case that your real skin is in there somewhere, under a mess of ugliness that isn’t you. Like one of those films in which a rescue dog is bathed and combed and has all the crap removed from its battered outsides, you may need restoring. And like any rescued animal that needs help, you may be terrified and the process may make no sense to you. It may not be until things are fixed that you’ll be able to make sense of what happened.

There’s a certain amount of violence in breaking open an egg or a seed. Transformation means the death of something, and death is scary and full of uncertainties. Change is natural, but that doesn’t mean it is bound to be easy.

Most triggers aren’t weird

I’m weary of people telling me that they can’t possibly think about triggers because it’s all too weird, and difficult and personal. It is true that some kinds of triggers are hard to imagine from the outside. I got into considerable difficulty with all things post related at one point, these things happen. However, there are areas of triggering that are really uncomplicated, and don’t take much thinking about or avoidance and that apply to many people.

Violence, implied violence and the apparent threat of violence. This can include looming, pushing, shouting, breaking things, throwing things… anyone with triggers is very likely to be triggered by this kind of behaviour. It is easy to warn people about violence in content you’re putting in front of them. It is also easy to avoid behaviour that makes people feel threatened and triggers ptsd flashbacks. It’s a totally rational response to be afraid for your own safety and wholly reasonable to ask people to act responsibly.

Power loss, loss of body autonomy. Don’t touch people without their permission. Don’t kiss people who say that they do not want to be kissed. Don’t pinch the bums of strangers. Don’t manipulate people into situations that make it hard for them to say no to you. Respect boundaries, take no for an answer.  Don’t make people responsible for things they have no power to fix.

Shame, guilt, humiliation, blame, put-downs, relentless criticism  – these are all popular with abusers and bullies. If you think that these are ok things to do because you have to defend your own fragile ego, you are the problem. If you think these are tools to use to help people, please don’t. Fat shaming being an obvious case in point here. Just no. It’s horrible and counterproductive. Be very alert to when you make people responsible for your emotional reactions. And if they make you angry? That still doesn’t entitle you to hit them.

What goes with this, invariably, is an attitude to distress that is really problematic. These activities go alongside being more upset over being called out than over there being a problem. People who do this will make it a bigger deal that you upset them by mentioning it, than that they did something out of order. They won’t apologise – or you get the ‘I’m sorry you took that the wrong way’ responses. They justify what they do, and they may gaslight you by telling you that’s not what they did, or said, or that your reactions are unreasonable and unfair. They will make it all your fault and you may end up feeling like you have to apologise to them for having felt hurt.

I’ve been working these issues through recently, looking at situations that I’ve found triggering. Most people don’t cause me any trouble at all. People who stray accidentally into my weird, personal trigger areas will, when it’s explained to them, try to be more careful.

There’s nothing weird or mysterious about those broader, more obvious areas of triggering. Most people won’t get anywhere near that behaviour. This is because most people are well meaning and decent. The people who say it is too difficult to think about what might be triggering are, I realise in hindsight, people doing really problematic things. Being triggered by this behaviour is a reasonable response because the behaviour is threatening and suggests all kinds of unpleasant things. Your body remembers the warning signs. These aren’t weird things no one could see coming, these are the very behaviours that traumatise people.

From here I will be taking ‘triggers are too complicated for me to think about’ as a massive red flag. And I’ll do myself the favour of recognising this kind of behaviour for what it is, and getting the hell away from it at the first opportunity.

Adventures in body chemistry

It’s a curious question to ask how much of your sense of self pertains simply to hormones and body chemistry. I had my first serious run-in with this issue in my twenties, when I learned how much my attraction to a specific person had been based on how they smelled, and when that changed, the attraction vanished. It was a disorientating experience.

As I waft about in the weirdness that is the menopause, my hormones are doing all sorts of exciting things. I get surges at night, that feel like being hit by some sort of massive wave of emotions that are just body chemistry and not otherwise caused by anything. These can leave me weeping, or overwhelmed with anxiety. Again it’s disorientating because it doesn’t relate to anything else that is happening.

I’m fairly confident at this point that I used to produce a lot more testosterone than I do now. I was a tougher, pushier, more enthusiastic, more driven sort of person when younger. I miss my fighting spirit. I miss my ambition and determination, but it just isn’t there at the moment, and the trade-off seems to be less leg hair, and I’m not entirely persuaded it’s a good trade!

I know all sorts of things influence my mood. Blood sugar levels can be highly influential. Temperature has a big impact on me. 

What I experience as ‘me’ is the chemistry in my body. It’s informed by what I do and what I eat, and by the process of aging and the strange tides of fertility. I am a cluster of haunted molecules, and the molecules are at least as influential as whatever’s doing the haunting. It’s making me look hard at who I think I am, and what I think defines me. For all of the chemical chaos, I am still able to make a lot of choices and I still think that who I choose to be is the most authentic part of who I am. The chemical adventures are intrinsic to being me right now, but its what I do around that which will define me most to myself.

How to cope

Balancing health – mental and physical, with work demands and rest isn’t ever easy if you’ve got any challenges going on. Sometimes there are no right answers. Resting can help, because exhaustion makes everything worse, but too much rest and your body will suffer from the lack of movement. Anxiety and depression can be eased with rest, but they can also be eased by feeling like you’ve achieved something.

There’s no definitive answer here, and what works for one person on one day might not work for that person on another day.

I find that ‘doing’ often helps in the short term. What self esteem I have depends on getting things done, making things and feeling useful. If I don’t feel useful, it’s not long before this deepens the depression and/or increases the anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be a high set bar. Getting one useful thing done in a day is enough, I have decided, and I hold myself to that.

Trying to rest doesn’t actually work if you’re fretting about something you think needs doing. If that thing is important – as well it might be – not having the energy is a massive problem. The longer it takes to be able to solve an issue, the more terrifying and anxiety-creating it can become. This often isn’t irrational and can trap people in vicious cycles of fear, illness, inability to act and increasing problems that feed the stress. Too often the assumption is that anxiety is a brain problem, but more usually it’s about how we’re interacting with the world. Fear can be a very rational response to out of control problems.

So you may end up self medicating to get through. Sugar and other stimulants can be used to push through exhaustion. Alcohol and other substances can be used to force rest. More and less legal options exist. Formal and informal medications exist. Sometimes, buying time in the short term to solve the big problems is worth it. Sometimes the big problems don’t go away, and every day is like running through a burning building and then you end up doing it while also dealing with addiction, or self-care strategies that have become problems in themselves. 

It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and see the mess and dysfunction and blame them for getting into that much trouble. Without seeing the process, you can’t see what was once a viable strategy that has now become part of the problem. So often, it’s the things we do to survive what we thought was a short term crisis that trip us up for the longer term. It is so easily done. Bad choices often don’t start out as bad choices, sometimes they were the best choices we could make at the time, but they too have consequences.